Authors, plagiarists, or tradents?

Time and again in modern studies of Tibetan literature of whatever sort, whether histories, technical treatises, tantric commentaries or treasure texts, we find the blithe, unreflective use of words like ‘author’ or ‘revealer’. Such words are a natural part of our modern lexicon, and at first glance they seem to be implied by Tibetan conventions too, for example in colophons or catalogues. Little wonder that we use them so freely. We happily say lama so-and-so ‘wrote’ a history, khenpo so-and-so ‘composed’ a commentary, or terton so-and-so ‘revealed’ a scripture. Yet on reflection, this is a rather hazardous way to talk about Tibetan literature, because Tibetan notions of literary production of any sort, be it of conventional compositions or prophesied revelations, can differ so markedly from the presuppositions of such terms in popular modern usage. It’s high time these differences were systematically investigated.

Anyone who has read much Tibetan literature will be familiar with one of its most salient differences to our own modern conventions: the ubiquitous verbatim repetition of phrases, sections, literary structures, and even entire chapters, across many different texts. Such repetition is commonplace even where these many different texts are written by ostensibly different authors. Some modern scholars have rather condescendingly (and stupidly) characterised this as ‘plagiarism’. They have entirely missed the point. Others avert their gaze in embarrassment from such features, and instead try to emphsasise the aspects of Tibetan literary culture that chime with our own values: originality, innovation, sceptical inquiry, and so on. But they have also missed the point to some extent, because although there is absolutely no doubt that such values do show themselves in Tibetan literature, whether in individual creativity or in the cultural generation of new genres, they occur against an established backdrop of quite different traditional literary norms.

What are these traditional norms? First of all, Tibetan religious literature, including Treasure, is sometimes (not always!) de facto collectively rather than individually produced: close inspection reveals that the final product has the input of more persons than the nominal ‘author’, often extending backwards (and even forwards) over considerable stretches of time. Much is also recycled, within a literary culture that normatively envisions contributors as tradents rather than innovators: in other words, the person producing a text sees himself as passing on existing knowledge, rather than creating new knowledge from nothing (I will elaborate further on the term tradent below). Texts can be substantially modified by other hands in subsequent re-publications, even while still retaining their original authorial (or revelatory) attribution. At other times, modification can be generated silently and less deliberately via the subtly transformative medium of memorisation: we must recall that Tibetan scholars carry huge tracts of literature around in their minds, which they can access instantly without recourse to a written book, but sometimes it comes out in a form ever so slightly different from other or previous iterations. I think one can even say that the Buddhist tradition often understands authorial attributions as a conventional shorthand indicating the accepted presiding spiritual authority in a given literary instance, rather than as the sole or exclusive literary agency that created it.

All this bears little resemblance to modern literary ideals, in which the author is constructed somewhat heroically as an individual creative source. Yet despite a vague general awareness of such differences, Tibetologists have never systematically addressed the issue, and we now have numerous detailed studies of works traditionally attributed to famous Tibetan sources, without further investigation into what such attribution might actually entail in each individual case. I have often felt that the time is long overdue for a new analysis of Tibetan religious authorship, and some new items of vocabulary to describe it.

After some years vaguely wondering how exactly to articulate such an approach and  vocabulary, in May 2008, I was rewarded with an answer. I invited Jonathan Silk to give a guest lecture, and aware of my interests, he obliged by delivering a wonderful paper entitled What Can Students of Indian Buddhist Literature Learn from Biblical Text Criticism? Although aimed at Sanskritists, it was obvious that what Jon was saying also applied to Tibetan studies. Suddenly, I came to the realisation that right here under my nose, in my own Wolfson College, Talmudic scholarship had already articulated much of the approach and vocabulary I needed – and yet I had not been aware of it![1]

Talmudic scholars no longer depend on the conventional modernist language of ‘authorship’ and ‘work’. Instead, they can speak of ‘tradents’, who  ‘re-anthologise’ existing ‘lemmata’ and ‘microforms’, sometimes anonymously, within the context of a culture of extraordinary textual memorisation and the ubiquitous synchronous interactions of written and oral modes of text.  We have a lot to learn from them, because Tibetan religious literature is in some important respects closer to Medieval Hebraic literature than to modern literature.

What do these terms mean, and why are they useful for us? Obviously, I can only give very brief answers here. Firstly, the word ‘tradent’ indicates a producer of text who sees as his main project the passing on of existing spiritual truths, rather than the invention of new ones ex nihilo. Since he is largely engaged in passing on existing truths, he tends to seek out existing materials of proven Dharmic worth, to use as building blocks with which to construct his new text. At the most elemental level, these building blocks comprise well established fundamental Dharmic categories, such as ‘The Three Jewels’, ‘The Four Activities’, ‘The Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities’, and so on. Some Hebraists call such fundamental categories ‘lemmata’. Longer passages, such as a paragraph or chapter comprising composites of such lemmata, are also legitimately reproducible either approximately or verbatim, according to Tibetan norms. Some Hebraists would call such reproducible composites that are not yet a complete work ‘microforms’. Finally, a complete work, such as the Guhyasamāja Tantra, or a commentary upon it, is called a ‘macroform’. The way such literary constructions are put together resembles an ‘anthological’ model: tradents select existing lemmata and microforms and re-anthologise them to make new wholes.

I cannot agree with those modern scholars who find such literature lacking in creativity. A good analogy is Lego: imagine if you ask two persons to make a square palace out of Lego bricks, one a great sculptor and architect, the other just an ordinary person. Clearly, the results would not be the same in quality, notwithstanding the restriction placed on the materials used and the outcome required. In the same way, some Tibetan tradents can produce works of astonishing subtlety and brilliance, while others can be unremarkable and predictable (of course, if they follow their cultural template accurately enough, both will at least produce a work of some value).

Literary production in Tibetan Buddhism, as anywhere else,  is a process, and in order to understand it, we need to track its processes minutely, step by step, bit by bit, stage by stage. Fortunately, we have been awarded funding from the AHRC[2] to do just this, in an international project based here at Oxford. Our local personnel are Vesna Wallace and Cathy and myself, while our international partners and consultants include Janet Gyatso, Sarah Jacoby, Matthew Kapstein, Jonathan Silk, Lopon P. Ogyan Tanzin, and Antonio Terrone. Part of the project is simply to minutely track all the processes, over several generations, that gave us some of the terma literature we know so well today, while another part will be to achieve critically-aware knowledge transfers from Hebrew studies and the English medievalists into Tibetology. Through this, we aspire to help catalyse a broader debate on what authorship really means in Tibetan religious writing as a whole, in other genres beyond terma, so that our analysis might contribute to the understanding of Tibetan religious writings as a whole. I hope it will be a rewarding study for all concerned.

[1] Peter Schaeffer wrote much of his most important work at Wolfson, while I was a graduate student there, yet I never encountered it at the time.  Jacob Neusner, Martin Jaffee and others working in medieval Hebraic literature have of course contributed equally to the debate.


[2] The Arts and Humanities Research Council, the main source for Humanities research in the UK.

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25 Responses to Authors, plagiarists, or tradents?

  1. Seth says:

    Do you have any recommended reading for the concepts of ‘tradent’, ‘microforms’, ‘macroforms’, and ‘lemmata’?

  2. Rob Mayer says:

    Seth, of course I do. A good place to start is The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee, Cambridge University Press, 2007. Jaffee’s article in that collection is an excellent starting point. The volume has a very comprehensive bibliography. I might add a short reading list to the blog in due course.

  3. Seth says:

    Rob, thanks. I was so intrigued by this entry that I poked around for a while yesterday and decided that that would be the best place to start so it’s already on its way via interlibrary loan.

    I look forward to further entries.

  4. Cameron David Warner says:

    Thank you for the insightful post. I think it is possible that “tradent” could work for gter ston. But in looking for more information on the word, I could not help but notice that for some scholars of biblical hermeneutics “tradent” is an out-dated term. Could you provide us some specific references to where the term is defined in greater detail in biblical hermeneutics? Or could you post a more detailed example of how you plan to use the term? I ask because I am interested in a gter ma, the Bka’ chems ka khol ma, as well as the other texts of its genre. In the case of the Bka’ chems ka khol ma, it clearly borrows bits of information popular pan-Buddhism. The different recensions vary dramatically and only one of them mentions Atiśa, whom we might not want to call a gter ston. Would you propose we call him a tradent? What about the other unknown men and women lurking beyond identification? And if a later writer/compiler/author does cite the Bka’ chems ka khol ma as the source of a passage, is that person a tradent or not? Thank you again for a thought-provoking post.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Cameron, thanks for this.
      You express concern that “for some scholars of Biblical Hermeneutics tradent is an out-dated term”.
      Firstly, I did not mention Biblical hermeneutics. I am looking at recent work in Medieval Hebrew scholarship, on the Talmud and Rabbinic literature, which is comparatively late, with it’s main text, the Babylonian Talmud, completed in 620 C.E, just before the Muslims conquered Mesopotamia. In Talmudic scholarship, the term tradent is used without any obvious shame or apology in recent works by leading figures – for example, by Martin Jaffee, on page 27 of the work I recommended above.
      You ask how I would use the term tradent: I have no plans to use the term at all as yet! Contact me again in four years, when we have completed our project, to see if I decide to use it or not. For now, I simply intend to reflect on the way in which scholars of Judaica and to some extent Islamic literatures have already been using this idea – and other ideas – for some decades.
      You ask, would I propose to call Atiśa a tradent? My answer is, again, come back to me with that one in four years!
      Individual terms don’t interest me much: it is the big picture that interests me, and the big picture is much broader and more complicated than any single term, or even a whole bunch of terms.

      • Cameron David Warner says:

        Dear Rob,
        Thank you for the detailed reply to my questions. I apologize for accidentally using “biblical hermeneutics” twice, when I clearly meant “medieval Hebraic literature” the second time. I think my question might have appeared out of context to you because for some reason my post and your reply to Seth’s post passed each other in the ether.
        George’s response follows my line of thinking. The agent(s) behind the Rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long are not gter ston-s, and yet George is willing to call people like them tradents. Whether we’re talking terminology or the larger picture, how does authorship in the literature George and I mention relate to the literature you are studying? Are our problems the same or different? Should the solutions be the same or different? You might not want to decide now, but your post aspired to catalyze a larger debate on authorship in Tibetan religious writing. You have succeeded!

        • Rob Mayer says:

          Dear Cameron,
          Many thanks for your stimulating mails. You ask, how does authorship in the historical literature George and you mention relate to the religious literature we are studying in our project? Well, as you have already guessed, that is one of the questions we hope to understand better at the end of our project. But it is clear that the recycling of text, in which the same or very similar passages resurface in several or numerous different locations, is ubiquitous in most genres of Tibetan writing. This is true not only of many histories, as the work of several scholars has already shown, but many other genres as well. I suspect it might be rare to find any scholar of Tibetan literature of any sort, who has not encountered at least some instances of textual recycling. Exactly as you say, increased scrutiny of what authorship means in the context of Tibetan Buddhist literature is what we would like to see, and if our project can contribute to that, we will feel vindicated.

  5. george fitzherbert says:

    Thanks for this post Rob, very useful, and I couldn’t agree more. As your post hints at, I don’t think that this issue only relates to gter ma, but should be the basis of an approach to traditional Tibetan literature in general, in which notions of individual authorship can offer only limited insights into the texts in question. The much studied rGyal rabs gsal ba’i me long is clear example. Whoever produced that text – Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen or, Legs pa’i Shes rab (as Dalai Lama V claims and Chape supports) – was certainly a tradent- using not only the bKa chems ka khol ma and Mani bka’ ‘bum but also very likely oral traditions of storytelling. In fact the way you describe lemmata and microforms seems very closely analogous to the “formulae” and “themes” of Parry/Lord/ Foley’s oral theory. Isn’t it fair to say that “authorship” in Tibetan religious literature, while being a process of re-anthologising” as you say, is also, on a technical level oral in nature. What I mean is, Lamas use scribes. Then there is then often a further process of editing (as evidenced eg by the bio Amelia works on – the original draft was much improved) before a text is published.
    I would say that process continues today, even in “Tibetan” literature written for Western audiences. What we see as ‘ghostwriting’ might actually be a seamless continuation of Tibetan literary practice….


    • Rob Mayer says:

      George, many thanks for your comments, which principally raise the very interesting question of the role of orality in Tibetan literature.
      But before responding to that, I should say at once that we are not merely hinting (as you suggest) that we believe these issues need to be investigated in most Tibetan literature, beyond terma: on the contrary, we are actively affirming that. As I said right at the top of my posting, I believe tradent-like behaviour occurs in the production of Tibetan literature of whatever sort, whether histories, technical treatises, tantric commentaries or treasure texts. The decisive factor influencing us to begin with an investigation into communal authorship in terma was purely pragmatic, because at the moment we have a better window into those particular texts than any others. Cathy is deeply familiar with much of the specific literature in question, and our lama consultant is a life-long expert in them, as well as closely associated with some of the actual chos-bdag and tertons concerned. So we are starting out on our investigation by working in the literature most familiar to us.
      I should perhaps also emphasise, if its not already obvious to you, that we believe the processes of textual production in terma share a great many features with other forms of Tibetan Buddhist textual production, and we fully expect that many of our findings will be transferable to other genres and instances.
      Now for orality: this is a really interesting question. Buddhist literature was in its first centuries entirely oral, so that one might say that Buddhism has orality in its roots. There have been several studies of this well-known fact, for example, Mark Allon’s Style and Function. Later, in Tibetan literature, the pattern was one of written and oral combined. The copying and printing of books was enormously valued, but so was the memorisation of huge quantities of text. What we need to understand better is how these two interacted. One of the things that makes the work of the Talmudic scholars so interesting is the joined-up way in which they manage to integrate an account of interactions between oral and written texts, into their more comprehensive analysis of authorship.

    • Saul Mullard says:

      George you raise a good point about the usefulness of Rob’s blog for other forms of Tibetan literature. It is also true that the rgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long itself was used by subsequent “tradents” in the composition of historical works making it a macroform. I have noted this with regards to ‘Bras ljongs rgyal rabs and Franz-Karl Ehrhard has also made a simmilar point. You also make a good point about orality in Tibetan literature, which is also certainly the case in the written forms of historical narratives in Sikkim (in that they have oral origins). But I also think that the fact that Tibetans memorize and compose treatise on the basis of those memorisations is important. I think Rob’s post has given us all something to think about and has provided us with suitable vocabulary to discuss “authorship” in Tibetan literature. I hope this blog will be followed up with a more detailed paper on the same subject.

      • Rob Mayer says:

        Saul, I appreciate your comments – many thanks.
        As I said right at the top of my posting, I believe tradent-like behaviour occurs in the production of Tibetan literature of whatever sort, whether histories, technical treatises, tantric commentaries or treasure texts. So, yes, it is good that you and George agree with me, since it could well be that some other scholars still underestimate the ubiquity of tradent-style self-perception amongst producers of Tibetan texts. Nanda Pirie reports it in legal literature, for example, and others have reported it in biographies. The examples of the tradent-like outlook are so pervasive and numerous, that it might be instructive to identify the exceptions, viz. those instances when text production is NOT envisaged in tradent-like terms.
        One thing we plan to show in our project is how tertons and the authors of conventional Buddhist literature are both engaged in a very similar process – that of passing on revered text from the past – they only differ in using slightly different techniques.

  6. Barbara Gerke says:

    This is an eye-opening post for me since I recently came across a popular book on Tibetan medicine authored by a contemporary Tibetan doctor. Finding a passage that sounded familiar, I discovered that several pages had been copied verbatim from another contemporary publication on Tibetan medicine (with neither references nor apparent shame), summarizing a 17th century medical commentary. For several days, I pondered whether I should contact the Tibetan author and make a point to him about modern copyright laws and the meaning of plagiarism. Reading your blog makes me realise that the author possibly had no intention to plagiarise anyone, but was only “passing on existing knowledge” following Tibetan traditional literary norms.

    Since these norms seem to be carried over into contemporary Tibetan writing, the question naturally arises as to their applicability to the modern publishing world. My inclination is to think Tibetan authors today need to become more self-conscious about their ways of “passing on existing knowledge” given modern copyright laws and the associated penalties for plagiarism. I’d be very interested in your reflections on this issue.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Barbara, many thanks for that, and for your very interesting observations. Intellectual property as we have it now is a modern Western notion, and a highly complex and varied one as well, which has for entirely understandable reasons not always been easily understood or appreciated in other cultures. We see this not only in textual matters, but also in DVD and software piracy, medical patent infringements, and elsewhere. But I do entirely agree with you, when operating in the modern context, people should observe appropriate conventions. An intriguing further complication – one that we also mention in our project – is the way in which internet technology is now moving literature once more towards a form of communal and partially anonymous authorship. Wikipedia is one example, but the inexorable pasting into student essays of internet-sourced materials is another, as is the unsanctioned transfers of materials from one website to another. Maybe some blogger will post the contents of this very blog into their website, or some student paste it into their essay. I think Dan Martin’s blog might already have been ‘copy-catted’.

  7. Dan says:

    Dear R,

    My reason for putting the ‘no copycats’ notice on Tibeto-logic is just to warn people not to take my words and use them for their profit. It did happen more than once, and I wrote to domain owners & hierarchs etc. to stop it, which they did eventually. Words have value on the internet, and according to some their primary value is to draw what is known as ‘traffic’ so that money can be collected for the advertising. If like me you try hard to avoid all commercialization, how is it supposed to be right if someone else takes your words and uses them for this purpose? (That reminds me of the story of the Mahasammata king, but no need to go into it. Well, it was also about fair sharing and property rights…)

    True, at some point the internet becomes such a giant commercial concern that it doesn’t matter if you create your tiny little non-commercial space in it. Those little autonomous islands will just help oil the global advertising engine. Add something of real beauty and interest, that’s fine. But you think Schmoogle & Ilk Inc doesn’t benefit? Help! Let me out!

    And there is another class of word-thieves who just steal the words and re-sort them, usually into some kind of alphabetic order, with the goal being to have as many words and potential search-phrases as possible. These sites are easy to spot in the schmoogle results, so best not to encourage them by giving them any ‘hits’ whatsoever. They ought to be destroyed.

    Are you thinking of monetizing? I can’t really blame those people who need the few pennies ads can provide. But I personally will do everything to resist getting Scientology ads on my blog (I say that not to pick on Scientology in particular, although it’s a real example of what often happens, just to say I detest the very idea that just because my blog mentions Buddhism a time or two it means I’d be happy to give this science-fiction neo-religion a boost for a few farthings).

    I’ll still respect you after you get adsense, really I will. Feel free in the free world. And rule your domain as you will.


    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dear Dan,

      I agree with you entirely, on both counts. I was probably not clear enough on the plagiarism issue: so let me say without equivocation that my blog comes out of a modern academic environment, and as such it does not plagiarise others, not will it tolerate being plagiarised. Anyone using the material herein must cite it properly.

      On the second issue, I have no plans at all to monetarise by running ads. The blog is not costing me anything. It is hosted by my faculty, on a specially established blogging area of their server space, thanks to an excellent man called Stephen Cox who set it up for us.

      I am sorry to hear your work has been exploited that way. You are universally appreciated (along with Gene Smith) as arguably the most generous scholar of our cohort. A post-doc in Tibetan history said to me recently that he barely knew of a PhD thesis anywhere in the last 20 years that has not benefitted from your freely-given advice (and that was certainly true of my PhD, where you gave me a large amount of truly valuable advice). In addition, your freely-given public contributions like TibSkrit are justifiably legendary for their vastness and erudition. But yes, there are apparently ghosts out there who will thoughtlessly steal even from the most generous persons. So perhaps I must seek out some wise advice and find the right form of words and location for a copyright notice.

  8. Nick Allen says:

    Dear Rob,
    Although I am nowadays on the extremest fringes of Tibetology, or outside them, I have enjoyed this conversation — both the idea of tradent and George’s comment on the Parry-Lord approach to Homer. I am on a lecture tour in North-East US and Canada at the moment, and some of the questions people have been asking me about Homer-Mahabharata comparison could have been answered better than I managed to do if I had been able to call on the terminology Rob has publicised.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dear Nick,
      How wonderful to hear from you, on a lecture tour. Apologies for being so slow to reply, but I spent a day attending to papers rather than pixels. Yes, the Hebraists have done a great job. Perhaps, unlike me, you met Schaeffer while he was at Wolfson? What George has said about the ideas of the Hebraists being analogous to the Parry-Lord-Foley oral theories is very interesting indeed, and undoubtedly merits much thought. I am sure we would all be very grateful for any insights you can add to the discussion—in fact, it would be excellent if you and George could attend some of our project meetings when the various European and American members come over. Perhaps we could also establish some meetings between ourselves in Wolfson in the meantime, to talk these things over. Would you be up for that?

  9. Karma Phuntsho says:

    Thank you, Rob, for starting the stimulating discussion of the originality in Tibetan literature. The word tradents and the Lego analogy you introduced are particularly interesting. Two thoughts occured to me as I finished reading your blog:
    1. Orignality, one could claim, has many degrees. Our most common understanding of originality is novelty of ideas and of presentation of ideas in a word, sentence, paragraph, book, etc. We cannot all possibly be original on the level of letters/alphabets/syllables; we can be rarely original on the level of the word. Originality in modern western context, from what I as a native Himalayan understand, has to do primarily with composing new clusters of words such as sentences and paragraphs, which add up to a new piece of writing. Reproduce a sentence or more which someone else has already produced, one would be committing plagiarism. I would say the Tibetan literary culture sees originality slightly differently. New ideas are not necessarily praised or viewedly positively. Sometimes, such creations are dismissed as rtog bzo or conceptual inventions. Originality is often associated not with new ideas but with presentation of ideas, not with microforms but macroforms. Thus, lemmata and microforms, like Lego bricks, are reproduced but to construct a different structure or style. Thus, a great number of Tibetan works with the same topics and verbitim reproduction of sentences and even paragraphs can be found among the treasure, commentarial and historical literature.
    2. There is a fine line bewteen plagairism and being faithful. As much as originality is appreciated, being faithful to the received tradition is an important Tibetan literary practice. And such faithfulness can range from a very strick adherence to the exact order of letters and words, as in the case of mantras and prayers, to being faithful in spirit. I suppose the more sacred and esoteric the topic, the more faithful the writers are. Thus, the profusion of verbitim reproduction in Treasure and Tantric literature. However, we must not exaggerate the downplay of originality. In some fields such as poetry, Tibetan writers do sneer at plagiarism. There is particularly some genuine plagiarism in recent Tibetan writings. Writings are reproduced without credit, not because the ‘authors’ believe in the value of being faithful to the received tradition but because they are simply lazy and incompetent writers. Whether one is being faithful or plagairistic can be perhaps only judged individually from the style, presentation, intent and purpose of the work.

    • Dan says:

      Karma Phuntsok’s comments set off all kinds of rambling trains of thinking in my mind. I thought this footnote 41 to the article “Veil of Kashmir” might add a little to the discussion (and here is a ref. to that article I already mentioned to you):

      “41 Academics frequently express the idea that plagiarism is an alien concept in Tibetan and Indian literature. That this is manifestly untrue in the case of India may be known by consulting Meera (1986) and the sources given there. Plagiarism involves a conscious effort to unjustly assume the authority that comes with authorship by concealing one’s actual sources. An homage, quite the contrary, pays honor to the original work and its author.”

      I’d say a crucial part in all this is played by an “assumption of prior knowledge.” There are certain things we assume that a person in our target audience will know. Concealment of sources (or revealing them) isn’t regarded as the least bit necessary. When we repeat those well-known words (at least in more literary contexts), we tend to do it for two main reasons that are opposite (excuse my structuralism) each other — either to make fun of the author’s words or to honor them. The first is a parody. The 2nd is a homage.

      I’m not at all sure how this line of thinking fits with your own, just that I think it’s worth reflecting about again (and again).

      Oh, before I forget, the Meera (1986) article is this one:

      Meera, S.
      Samvāda or Plagiarism as Viewed by Sanskrit Ālaṅkārikas,
      Annals of Oriental Research, University of Madras, vol. 32, pt. 1 (1986), pp. 1-12.

      • Rob Mayer says:

        Dear Dan,
        Many thanks for this and the reference to your article in RET 14, which is the Festschrift for Samten Karmay. You say ‘plagiarism involves a conscious effort to unjustly assume the authority that comes with authorship’: maybe this is akin to what Karma meant by the importance of intention. Authority is surely a very important consideration in Tibetan Buddhist writing, and authority implies questions of religious legitimacy and hierarchy. Repetition made with the pure intention of passing on tradition is virtuous and respectful to the lineage of masters, but repetition made with the impure intention to usurp or assume their authority in an undeserved manner is insufferable presumption.
        The reverse is also true: the words of the masters can be changed respectfully and legitimately, but they can also be changed illegitimately. In terma literature, it is all a question of entitlement through lineage. After being appointed as chos bdag, Dudjom Rinpoche comprehensively wrote up and expanded the termas of his guru Zilnon Namkha Dorje. He also comprehensively rewrote some of the termas of his own previous incarnation, Dudjom Lingpa. He was entitled to do both these actions because of who he was. If someone else had tried to do this, the reception would have been very different indeed. Naturally, Dudjom never claimed authorship in either case: Zilnon’s termas are still attributed to Zilnon, even where Dudjom Rinpoche wrote most of the actual text, and Dudjom Lingpa’s termas are still attributed to Dudjom Lingpa, even in those instances where Dudjom Rinpoche actually rewrote them quite comprehensively.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Dear Karma,
      Many thanks for your comments, which are extremely valuable to us because you are so well placed to know Tibetan literature and its norms far better than we ever could. I am glad you agree with our general interpretation – that Tibetan Buddhist literary creativity primarily expresses itself through virtuosity in presentation, rather than in the purported development of entirely new ideas.
      In fact, that simply makes Tibetan religious literature commensurate to many highly valued pre-modern Western traditions, be it the Jewish Talmud, a medieval Christian favorite such as the Boethius, or various Islamic texts. It is the modern situation which is perhaps the exception.
      Above all, we are talking about ideals. As you say, in Tibetan Buddhist writing, the more sacred the subject, the more one should avoid innovation of content, and in a society in which religion is so pervasive, this attitude has colored many aspects of literary life. But in the last 500 years, as the West has become increasingly secular, it has witnessed an increasingly intense focus on originality and innovation. Of course, these qualities are not easily achieved, any more than it is easy for a Tibetan author to really understand the Buddha’s intentions. Hence I spoke, slightly ironically, of the modern author “constructed somewhat heroically as an individual creative source”.
      You make two further points, which I find particularly valuable, because they directly answers the question I raise in my response to Saul, viz. when is repetition NOT permitted in Tibetan writing? Firstly, you say that poetry is an area in which Tibetans would regard repetition of existing text as an illegitimate form of copying. Many thanks for that; it gives me much food for thought. Might it even be the case that religious forms of poetry, including doha in India and mgur in Tibet, tend to avoid certain kinds of textual borrowings? Secondly, you say that there is now some ‘genuine plagiarism’ in modern authors, who do not have the intention of being faithful to any received tradition, but who are simply lazy and exploitative! That is an important point for Barbara’s comment. It also gives me much food for thought.

  10. Bryan Phillips says:

    Wow. Found this thread after my previous comment. It is great that you are delving into these issues in such a purposeful and panoramic way. This issue of creativity, its role within “tradition,” and whether or not creativity can survive the “authority” of tradition is one that extends well beyond Tibetan literature, though of course it’s an incredibly relevant lense for understanding. As I have recently strayed into traditional Himalayan art (of the Nyingma/terton bent), it is easy to see how these concerns also play out in the visual depiction of particular treasure recoverers and the significant events of their lives. And this aspect of the vital reproduction of these ancient traditions is still very much alive and in process to this day, in Bhutan if not elsewhere. I am aware that a new series of murals depicting the life of Longchen rabjam is under commission for Tharpaling in Bumthang, and the same will be true for the next several years (instead rendering the deeds of Guru Rinpoche) as the erection of the humungous Guru Rinpoche in Takela, Lheuntse, continues.

  11. Geoff says:

    I have greatly enjoyed reading this post and the series of comments. With so many good points already made, I fear I don’t have much to offer, other than to call attention to an article I came across a while ago in the New York Times. The article discusses plagiarism in American universities, and like many other such articles, it notes that the practice is increasing. The interesting part is that students, apparently, also increasingly see putting a verbatim wikipedia quote in a paper as a legitimate way to write a paper, rather than cheating. The increasing presence of this attitude, the article suggests, indicates that notions of authorship and creativity may be changing in our society. Musicians routinely sample previous music to create new pieces and some students seem to be applying that model to their writing work. So perhaps we need to be distinguishing authors and tradents in more than just Tibetan (or Hebraic) literature.

  12. Thank you, Rob, for this very interesting essay (and for the discussion you host). I am sorry I am joining it just now.
    I have been working on the concepts of “originality”, “authoriality” and “quotations” in Indian philosophical texts during the last few years and I noticed a similar pattern: authors belonging to a certain school feel free to re-use in their work whatever has been written by their predecessors. It is their school’s lore and using it is required if one wants to be part of it. It is by no means a sort of plagiarism. One is original insofar as one organizes arguments in a new way, for instance showing how argument B can be used against objection C, and so on. Consequently, loose references abound and exact quotes are not the rule.
    In my studies on this topic, I also noticed that the topic of authoriality has emerged and vanished several times in Europe and in India. Probably wikipedia, etc., are evidences of the fact that its importance is currently decreasing again.
    I would be *very* interested to keep in touch with everyone working on these or related topics (and especially with you).

  13. Cody Bahir says:

    This is a wonderful piece and something I have honestly been waiting to see for quite some time. I am a PhD student whose dissertation work focuses on Shingon Buddhism. However, both my MA and BA are in Jewish Studies.

    It has always struck me that there seems to be such a lack of bonafide terminology (or even methodology) for dealing with various forms of authorship in Buddhist Studies as compared to Jewish Studies. Because of this, I have always been forced to rely on scholarship on Jewish texts, which though sometimes raises an eyebrow, is a necessity.

    Not only does Biblical Criticism help fill in the gap, but the Rabbinic Literature which you mentioned, particularly, being that Rabbinic Literature is the “Oral Torah” and vacillates between prescriptive and descriptive voice, sometimes within a single paragraph.

    Thank you for this, I hope to see further work and interdisciplinary dialogue in the near future as this piece is just a tiny tip of the iceberg.

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